Monday, October 20, 2014

Days of Fire



During the outbreaks of Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, many devout Christians believed that the prophecy inherent in the book of Revelation was about to be realized.  The disease came after drought and famine, and as the bodies began to pile up, people desperately tried to find a rhyme or reason as to why some were infected and some avoided getting sick.  Ships arrived in port with every sailor sick and dying, and in at least a few cases, the vessels ran aground because everyone on board was already dead.  At night, people reported strange fires and mists that seemed to carry pestilence and immediate death.  All day in the sweltering heat of summer, the pope kept huge fires burning in the papal apartments at Avignon, believing that aromatic wood would ward off infection.  Those days of fire did nothing to keep Death at bay.

The plague took three forms:  a lymph infection causing buboes, apple-sized swellings that became purple or black in the armpits and groin; a blood infection resulting in deep purple bruising and skin discolorations all over the body; and a pneumonic form causing the coughing up of blood and respiratory failure.  All three forms were fatal, usually, and the last was most puzzling to people at the time.  They had yet to understand airborne contagion.  There were stories of people going to bed well and dying before they woke up the next morning.  Others died within twenty-four hours of first symptoms.  Whole households would perish, but others would be untouched, or have only a few family members die.  Monasteries were obliterated, and priests disappeared.  Doctors also fell victim, leaving a dearth of medical aid for those who remained.  Husbands abandoned sick wives and children.  Children left their parents, or were forced to fend for themselves when the parents died.  The very structure of family and communal life was destroyed as the plague swept the cities, towns and villages.

But all of those people were wrong about Revelation prophecy.  The Black Death did not visit their homes because of something written in an apocalyptic book of symbolism and metaphors dated to the first century of the common era.  In their panic, they looked for signs and indications to understand what was happening.  In the same way, the recent Ebola outbreak around the world must be understood and kept in perspective.

Over the weekend, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar” to oversee the United States’ continuing response to the health crisis.  Many are criticizing his choice of Ron Klain, a former member of Joe Biden’s staff who is not a doctor or health care expert.  In recent news reports, the president has been portrayed as impatient and angry with government agencies’ responses to the terrifying illness.  When interviewed on CNN or any other news outlet, officials from the Centers for Disease Control say that there is little chance of an outbreak among civilians, and that some infection in doctors and nurses who treat the sick is to be expected.  On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, people like Rick Perry demand that borders be closed and travel restricted.  I’m waiting for someone to step up to a microphone and tell us this is God’s work, a punishment foisted upon us for our own deviant lifestyle.

A colleague of mine greets every mention of Ebola with, “So this is the end, right?  This is the end of the world?”  The world could end in many ways, and for sure will end when the sun collapses on itself sometime in the future.  However, Ebola, although a threat to human existence, is not the end of the world or of us.  It will cause deaths because it is a dangerous disease, but the stupid statements that it is a genetically engineered sickness designed to limit population growth, that’s just conspiracy hogwash.  In history, there have been many extinct species, and each died off because of certain factors in the environment, in hunting practices, and in just basic bad luck.  Until we find a vaccination or a reliable cure, Ebola will kill people, especially those poor folks who live in dire circumstances and cannot afford first world medical treatment.  Even with that treatment, some may die.  But life is like that; it is dangerous.  Ebola is just one more thing that can kill us.

When did we come to believe that we are invincible?  That is not natural.  No threats, no terrifying diseases, or vicious, wild animals, or bad guys, that’s not realistic in the life equation.  We have always been chased and threatened and forced to fight or run away.  People are born, they live, they die.  That is what is.  Ebola, and every other dangerous thing in the world, should make us think about what is important:  the people we love, the art we create, our commonalities, the beauty and symmetry of our differences.

Last night, I was in a restaurant having dinner when an African-American family arrived at the next table.  They were dressed in their Sunday best—a son in his 30s, a wife, a teenager, and an elderly man who had to be helped to his seat, and his wife who was confined to a wheelchair and could not speak.  As the son tucked the napkin into his father’s collar, the old man said:  “This is so great!  We didn’t know what we were going to eat at home before you all called to take us out.”  His voice had the gravelly richness of Louis Armstrong, and was full of pleasure and gratitude.  His words stabbed at me.  The joy of good food and family obviously meant something to him, namely a richer life.  I leaned over to my wife and told her the old man’s voice reminded me of Armstrong singing the song, “What a Wonderful World.”  Watching the family enjoy their time together on a Sunday evening before starting the crush of a new week, I felt strangely exhilarated and renewed.  I felt hope that even with the pain and suffering in this life, there would always be the simple joys and pleasures of family dinners, time with friends, and a moment of relaxation ahead of a hectic work week.

Ebola reminds us how to live.  It takes from us, it threatens us, it instills fear.  In the poetry of Psalms, we know that we are forever walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but we should not fear because we are not alone.  Ebola just might bring us a gift.  As with all things in life that remind us of the fragility of existence, we must see the world and recognize its terrors, but we must not be afraid to live.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Notebook Problem



For the last few days, my attention has been caught up in the “notebook problem.”  Yes, Ebola has now been found in America; ISIS continues its reign of terror; the drought in the western United States has become dire for farmers and anyone with a lawn; and racial unrest in Ferguson boils over every night as darkness falls.  Yet, here I am worried about notebooks.  I guess it is about how I obsess over those other things that makes me concerned about my notebooks because it is in my notebooks that I mull over the state of the world, the way we live now, the future and the past and of course, the present.

As the world turns, I compulsively write.  I note.  I get down the words and phrases I hear.  I record the drama and the comedy.  I cannot stop my hands on the keyboard or from moving across a page.  Last month, I wrote more than 17,000 words and 27 single-spaced pages in a file on my computer called “Chronicle,” but is, in fact, my journal.  None of that material saw publication, and I would not want it to, but every word was necessary to my sanity.  So 17,000 words on top of essays, reports, emails, memos, teaching materials, and class notes that did see the light of publication in some form.  I write this by way of proving that keeping a notebook is essential to my life, the way I make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world.

So what is the problem?  The computer file and 17,000 words are not enough.

First, I am in love with the feeling of a medium-nib fountain pen moving across a fresh page.  I love the cursive spin of the words, something I first learned in second grade.  I love a school composition notebook, with its black and white speckled cover in all its infinite varieties of college-ruled, wide-ruled, assorted colors in that traditional speckled pattern, or even a few I picked up in Santa Barbara from Chaucer’s Books that are called “Decomposition Books” because they are made entirely of recycled material.  I love my reporter’s notebooks, suitable for notes and lists and quick jots.  I love legal pads for class notes, and especially love the ones made out of recycled paper that soak of the dark blue or black ink spilling from the aforementioned fountain pen.  I love typing, my fingers flying across the keyboard stacking up words on words on words.

Writing instruments—yes, I love the laptop computer, so portable, so convenient.  And let’s break down the fountain pen fetish:  I have three cheap Schaeffer’s that tend to leak when left in my leather satchel, so they camp out on my desk in a cup.  They are utilitarian and get the job done, but are not my first choice.  I have three Waterman’s that work best on the recycled paper.  I have a rich-looking Cartier, black and silver and ready for speed, but with a very small ink tube that limits its mileage.

I am left-handed, which means that most writing instruments, desks, and other minutiae of the writing life are not designed for me, but I make do.  I tend to grip my pens too firmly, and therefore, I suffer from painful writer’s cramp after only a page or two.  If I persist for an hour, my hand will loosen up and I’m fine, but when I first start out, it is slow, painful going.  This is why I’ve gravitated to the keyboard for all my writing recently.  I take notes in the reporter’s notebook, a kind of shorthand that I can later expand into full, typewritten notes.  But I miss the swirl of the pen across the page, crafting sentence after sentence, slow and steady and considered.

How I write is as important as what I write.  I need the perfect combination of tactile and fluid writing on the first draft as I do the combination of editing and revision in later drafts.  Many studies have been done that associate the engagement with pen and paper as a way of internalizing a topic or subject.  The brain engages with the pen in hand in a way it doesn’t in any other form.  To physically take up the pen is like firing the pistons in the engine that is the brain.  Therefore, we mourn the loss of cursive instruction.  Those who should know better say no one writes with a pen anymore.  Kids exit the womb looking for a keyboard, or at the very least, voice activated software that allows them to start navigating the wired world immediately after the umbilical cord is cut.  Sever one cord and go cordless?  Life could use some retrogression, some slowing down.

Yet, the question must be asked:  is my writing different when I write a draft out by hand first?  For me, the pain in my hand often limits the expansive-ness of my draft, so I usually wind up adding more when I type it up.  But I’m okay with that.  There are also some things that simply must be written by hand while others need the speedy typist.  Therefore, here is the plan:

For my response to the world, the chronicling of real life as it is lived, not my life, but world life, I will type directly into my “Chronicle” file.  Reportage, no “I” allowed.  I will be the third person objective reporter.  This material, however, will not be for publication, although it may be reworked into something at a later date.  This is transcription of what’s going on out there.

In my composition books, I will write down my personal reflections.  In this notebook, it is all about me, and most certainly will never see the light of publication.  These are the notebooks I’ll ask my wife to destroy without reading when I am gone.  On these pages, I can be whiny, narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, puerile, immature.  I can rant and rave and bemoan my poor station in life.  Boo-hoo.  But, I will also try to examine my own spirituality, my faith, my hopes and dreams.  This will be my notebooks of secrets.

My beloved reporter’s notebooks will be used for lists and quick notes, like interesting words or phrases, people I want to research, concepts I wish to explore, daily compilations of things to do.  This will be the notebook that will often be stuck into a back pocket for an emergency pen and paper.  I have them already in my car, my satchel, my desk drawer, my work space.  The ubiquitous quick thought receptacle, always at the ready.

The legal pad is for work—class notes, full drafts, research material, fully excavated and fileted ideas, splayed out on the page like an unlucky frog in high school biology class.  I will also go back later and type up these notes after revisions, reorganizations, re-prioritizings, until they are ready and willing to be written up as essays.

Of course, will I have time for so much writing?  Will it become “too many notebooks, so little time?”  Will some of these pristine pages die of loneliness?  Will they feel neglected?  My answer is this:  I want to write well enough to justify the killing of the trees.  In the end, wherever and whatever I write, that is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

How About Never--Is Never Good For You?



It is probably not fair that I read and loved Roz Chast’s cartoon memoir of her last years with her parents before I read Bob Mankoff’s similar reflections on his life in How About Never—Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons (Henry Holt and Co., 2014).  Both are great cartoonists; Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor at The New Yorker while Chast is one of many in the humorous illustration business at the magazine.  Both books consist of drawings and prose, making them unique in the way they tell a life story.  However, that is also where the two diverge dramatically.  Chast’s memoir was both sad and funny in equal measure and focused on a specific time in her life.  Mankoff goes for a mix of autobiography and an analysis of cartoon humor and specifically, humor at The New Yorker.  In this way, his book is less funny, although there are some classic cartoons reprinted here, many from other cartoonists that Mankoff has edited over the years as well as from Mankoff himself.  It is a primer for those who want to be cartoonists (a dying breed, according to Mankoff) or those who have always been intrigued by The New Yorker wit and humor.  In the latter group I count myself.  I’ve even used the cartoons in my classroom to have students analyze what makes them funny.  It is a subtle and nuanced form, as is the case with most great art.  In the end, I valued Chast’s work for its poignant honesty about how we grow old while appreciating Mankoff’s work for its insight into the life of The New Yorker.  It is interesting timing that both books have been released recently, and a sign that cartoons can be literature and function as hybrid nonfiction storytelling.

Because of his desire to not only illuminate his own life, but the cartooning process, Mankoff’s book has a didactical component.  He takes the reader through the process of selecting panels for the week’s issue, something done in conjunction with longtime editor David Remnick, who, according to Mankoff, is no slouch when it comes to humor and cartoon analysis.  Mankoff gives us a history of cartooning as well as a deconstruction of cartoons that have appeared in the magazine.  He explains how he started The Cartoon Bank, which has taken what he calls “leftovers” and licensed them out to other magazines, ad campaigns and miscellaneous venues resulting in a lucrative second opportunity to earn income for Mankoff and his cartoonists.  He also explains in detail how he culls the 500 cartoons he looks at each week to the 50 he takes to the editorial meeting on Wednesday afternoons.  It really is an interesting process, and the book feels like it gives more attention to cartooning and humor than to the life story of the editor.

One of the more intriguing processes he focuses on is the development of captions.  The few words that accompany each panel are often studies in humor-poetry, almost haiku-like in their brevity, but every word has weight and heft in generating laughs.  He cites examples of cartoons that did not make the cut and what was wrong with each of them, as well as captions that did not work.  Of course, worth the price of the book alone, he tells us how to win The New Yorker weekly cartoon caption contest found on the last page of each issue.  His insights will not necessarily result in a slam dunk win, but he makes clear what he is looking for when his assistant wades through the submissions.  Even noted film critic Roger Ebert tried the contest, 107 times before he finally won, so competition is fierce.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, especially since I have no talent in drawing.  I love The New Yorker and thoroughly enjoy the pithy cartoons, but drawing them is a mystery to me, or at least it was until I read this book.  It did not make me draw any better, but it did explain the creative process of a cartoonist.  If anything, Mankoff may try too hard to be funny, but he mounts what really is an academic study of humor and cartooning, so a little dose of fun goes a long way to keep things interesting.  How About Never—Is Never Good For You? is both entertaining and funny as well as being a graduate study in a disappearing art form:  the magazine cartoon.  Bob Mankoff is a good teacher, combining just the right touch of memoir, art, humor and education to open a window on the way things work in the life of a cartoonist at The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

For The Time Being



Annie Dillard’s books have always had a deeper, more spiritual quality.  Many are just like Buddhists’ works—short, pithy, and intense, the kinds of books where one reads a few sentences and then must stop to contemplate and internalize the insights.  Her greatest are A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), An American Childhood (Harper & Row, 2013), Teaching A Stone To Talk:  Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Perennial, 2013), The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 2013), and the book under consideration here, For The Time Being (Vintage, 2000).

In truth, this is my second trip through this book.  The first time, not only did I find the book moving and inspirational, but the author led me to other works that are now an integral part of my library.  She opens the book with a quote from Evan S. Connell:  “The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols.  Through every age he walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption.”  And, “I have agreed to paint a narrative on the city walls.  I have now been at work many years, there is so much to be told.”  It is on these two cryptic notes that she begins, and because of this, I was inspired to find Connell’s work, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (Counterpoint, 2013).  Dillard’s book is a bit more structured and less abstract than Connell’s, but both are equally deserving of attention.

Annie Dillard has an elliptical quality to her poetic prose here.  There are patterns and circular narratives and symbols that she utilizes to convey the experience of human existence.  She begins with a narrative of birth defects, of all things, to illustrate the various ways we are incarnated into this world, some of us in lesser form than others, yet every life full of meaning, filled with presence.  She utilizes both a scientific and a metaphysical approach, integrating religious and secular spirituality that spans a plethora of beliefs.  She explores the work of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-paleontologist, and describes his work ethic of being open to all things, all possibilities of existence as he uncovers layers of the past in the Mongolian desert.  She quotes him:  “The immense hazard and the immense blindness of the world…are only an illusion.”  It is this illusionary quality and ephemeral nature of life that Dillard spends a considerable portion of this book examining.

The integration of all spiritual persuasions, true believers and non-believers, makes Dillard’s work so powerful.  She tells us that Confucius wept when he realized he would die, and she quotes a snippet of dialogue from the Mahabharata:  “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?  That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”  Indeed, it is this question that haunts her work:  How do we live in a world where we are destined to die?  It is the very question of humanity:  how can we know and comprehend our multi-faceted life before we cease to exist.  Human life is but a singular moment, an inconsequential second in the hours, days, and years of existence.  What does human life mean?  What does it mean to be alive?

Dillard describes the torturous turns life can take, the brutality instigated by religion and the higher power, the rabbis flayed by Romans, the bird children born in a perversion of normality.  She ponders the span between the infant and the corpse—what does it all mean?  Harkening back to her epigraph from Evan S. Connell, we realize we are but travelers here, strangers in a strange land, temporary guardians of this time and space destined to perish ourselves in the ages.  All we have, really, is the story, the fantastical moment we inhabit.  It is magical and philosophical writing that inspires thought and contemplation, much like the historical figures she describes.  How are we not enlightened by the baby and the corpse? she asks us, paraphrasing E.M. Forster.  What do we learn from our forays into science and the human soul?  Do we learn anything from the journey?  Somehow we transcend our own finality.  In fact, the concept of God “is the awareness of the infinite in each of us,” she tells us.  So, for the time being, how do we live?  And, “What use is material science as a philosophy or world view if it cannot explain our intelligence and our consciousness?” she asks.

Along the journey, Dillard includes the metaphysical and inexplicable mysteries of life.  The 1976 earthquake in Tangshan that “killed 750,000 people.  Before it quaked, many survivors reported, the earth shone with an incandescent light.”  And, “If you walk a graveyard in the heat of summer, I have read, you can sometimes hear—right through the coffins—bloated bellies pop.”  All of this goes to illustrate our desire to uncover the mystery of why we are here and what happens to us once we are gone.  With the pain, the suffering, and yes, the ecstasy, what does this life mean?  Does she ever provide answers?  In a way, because she forces the reader to think and to consider.  The answers may differ from person to person; for this time being, though, we each must consider how our light is spent, to paraphrase Milton, and find our own version of the truth.

The book is simply wonderful, deeply profound and intriguing.  It is of particular importance now in these troubled times, where human life is so little valued, and religious extremism haunts our dreams both while we are awake and asleep.  Annie Dillard is a descendent of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and this thin book offers wisdom found only in deep contemplation and the knowledge gained from knowing the finite nature of life and the world around us.